- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 6, 2005

There’s so much we take for granted. Out of cinnamon? We can run to any store and find some. Fresh ginger root? We can buy it in most produce departments.

It’s important to remember, though, that at one time spices, nuts and even sugar were considered precious. They were brought west to Europe from Asia and the Middle East by returning Crusaders, according to food historian Alice Ross (www.aliceross.com).

Considered not only exotic but also precious in their rareness, these foods were used almost exclusively as ingredients in religious celebrations and observances.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, spices, sugar and nuts became more secularized, but because they were still pricey and out of reach to most people, they were considered food for the upper classes.

As time went on, holidays were still the focal point for sweets, and different regions developed their own signature approaches to spiced cookies and cakes.

In many European countries, gingerbread remained a molded cookie made with some combination of honey, wine, bread crumbs and spices, and bore stamped or pressed images of people, celestial bodies and workaday themes, such as houses.

When gingerbread migrated to Colonial America, it was adapted to the pioneer lifestyle. Most baked goods were cobbled together in rough home kitchens, and all culinary effort needed to be efficient and straightforward, since there was little time for amusement.

Gingerbread morphed into a simple batter cake (not shaped unless intended for special occasions when decoration was needed) that could be spread in a pan and eaten plain with little fanfare and no fuss.

To this day, we have two very different kinds of gingerbread: the hard kind we fashion into people and decorative houses for the holidays, and the soft, spicy kind we cut into squares.

I have at least five favorite straight-from-the-pan gingerbread recipes, and I really think the recipe that follows is the most satisfying. This is hearty and dense dessert or tea fare.

The recipe calls for serving the gingerbread with lightly sweetened whipped cream, but you could also make it into a heavier snack by serving it on a cold afternoon with strong vanilla-infused black tea, a platter of cheeses (included some Stilton and a sharp cheddar), and autumn fruit, including pears and persimmons. Pass a bowl of toasted walnuts and dried figs, and enjoy the sound of the rain.

Spicy honey-yogurt gingerbread

Nonstick cooking spray

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root (see note)

cup light-colored honey (see note)

light molasses

3/4 cup plain yogurt (full fat, low-fat or nonfat are all fine)

1 large egg, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoons dry mustard

teaspoon cloves or allspice

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 cup minced crystallized ginger

Lightly sweetened whipped cream

Lightly spray an 8-inch square baking pan with nonstick spray. Set aside.

Melt butter in small skillet. Add ginger root and cook over medium heat for about 3 minutes, or until fragrant. (Don’t let it brown.) Remove from heat and set aside.

Combine honey and molasses in a medium-size bowl and beat at high speed with an electric mixer for about 2 minutes, or until fluffy and opaque. Scrape in ginger-butter mixture and beat again for another minute or so. Stir in yogurt, egg and vanilla, then beat again at high speed for an additional minute and set aside.

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, dry mustard, cloves or allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg in a large bowl, then stir in the minced crystallized ginger. Make a well in the center and pour in the honey mixture. Mix by hand until thoroughly combined.

Spread batter in prepared pan. Bake on center rack of preheated 350-degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the top is springy to the touch. Cool at least 15 minutes before slicing. Serve at any temperature with lightly sweetened whipped cream. Serves 6 to 9.

Note: The best fresh ginger root is turgid and crisp and will snap in half easily. The other freshness test is to scrape off a little of the skin with your fingernail. The thinner and more easily scraped the skin, the fresher and juicier the ginger root.

Choose a variety of honey that is light in color, since color indicates mild flavor. Honey seems like a heavy ingredient to use in baking, but when it is whipped with an electric mixer at high speed, air is incorporated and it becomes fluffy.

This beating step is crucial to the texture of the gingerbread.


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